Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Online issues and crisis management strategies

Many organisations have a problem with getting involved with a form of communication over which there is little control and which, for some, seems to have so little by way of measurable benefit.

The issues are simple management judgements about resources and effects and the potential for crisis seem to be self evident. Most of the heat in such arguments are based on prejudice, ignorance as to the capability to manage online issues or sheer funk.

Even today, many management teams are wary of the internet and many see it as a threat. For some there is no doubt that it is a threat and needs management. The PR practitioner can allay such fears and to a huge extent remove risk

Much of internet activity does not follow the usual linear models for management. The sequence of events can be disrupted by the online community. So too can many, if not most, management activities. Online PR is no different to managing any other organisational function.


The solution to mitigating risk is to adopt practices from other disciplines in which “management of the unknown” is common. Some of the greatest benefits to modern living have become possible because we know how to manage where there is uncertainty. Examples of how organisations have developed risk management strategies range for the UK Health and Safety Executive to Stephen Ward's studies at Southampton University.


Risk and opportunity

Organisations can use some well known techniques to second guess what will be fashionable or will work (and those that won’t) using risk and opportunity techniques well established in other disciplines .

One thing we know is that risk and opportunities changes are dependent on complexity. If a programme is very complicated there is more to go wrong and online PR, with its range of platforms, channels and contexts, is quite complicated. But as we also know the opportunities for considerable incremental success is greater.

Risk_Assessment_1


Fig 1. The relationships between complexity, criticality size and complexity

In most online interactions there are risks and opportunities. To manage them we need to identify them. This can be done by an individual, a focus group or management team or can be established from research. It’s a great opportunity for a brain storm with someone making notes!

In preparing a strategy for an online programme it is worth looking at where there may be influences that can affect it. In online interactions it is possible to second guess many, if not most, of the potential risks.

It is also possible to evaluate risk and asses its influence in terms of probability and impact.

An example might be that confidential information could leak out of the organisation and into the public domain because an employee has a blog or other social media presence. The risk evaluation team can come to a conclusion as to the probability and and impact and in doing so can list risks and the extent to which they are probable and or would have a significant organisational impact.

Having described risks and potential for effects, the organisation's PR evaluation team will asses each element in terms of likelihood of occurrence and impact. It helps put the risk or opportunity into perspective.

This is a technique used by many corporate and public sector organisations. It is the kind of matrix that might be used to assess risk for a PR campaign, school outing and is also used in project management.

Risk_Matrix

Assessing the impact of events which can be estimated before any action is taken (now) and again after mitigating policies are proposed by the team, it will be possible to see if the potential if the risk is lowered (and acceptable) prior to implementation or exposure.

The process for mitigating risk is to create a mitigation (or contingency) plan, process or protocol to reduce either of both risk of likelihood or impact.

For example, to reduce the effect of an employee saying something our of turn in social media, a simple policy statement by the organisation distributed to all employees and a disclaimer by the organisation about personal views and opinions of the organisation's web site will reduce risk and often to an acceptable level.

Once a mitigation plan has been worked out, a new assessment is made of the likelihood or impact to see if the proposed actions for mitigation has had an effect that makes the risk acceptable.

Risk_Assessement_2

These methodologies can be used in making all manner of decisions including the extent to which the internet should be made available during working hours (knowing that most people have access on their cell phones anyway). This structured approach helps inform such decisions.

Using such a process through each part of the planning process reduces risk to a manageable level and also helps to make precise projections of expected outcomes.

Risk management is a process and can be applied to strategy as well as tactics.


Risk_Management_Process


Of course, for each risk there is an opportunity. By applying the same technique but looking for opportunities and means to optimise such opportunities, the organisation can enhance the effectiveness of any approach to a campaign.

It is all too easy to imagine events in stark black and white answers. This is seldom the only solution and, as a result practitioners can work on contingency planning

There are a lot of techniques that can be applied to ameliorate risk, optimise opportunity and, written into the programme strategy using techniques adopted from other disciplines, PR can ensure greater certainty in online activities.

Risk_Management_Options

Disaster seldom comes unannounced for most organisations. There tend to be number indicators that presage the public event.

The key is to be able to identify the stages as they present themselves. They are:

Variation

All plans have expected outcomes, financial budgets and timescales. These are often identified using aids for project planning (see above).

Monitoring such plans will identify where plans are going awry. Often such occurrences are small. These are 'variations' to the plan.

Good monitoring will give teams notice that remedial action can take place and contingency built into the plan will calmly eliminate the risk and opportunity for escalation into crisis An example might be a contingency sum in a budget and some flexibility in campaign delivery time built into the PR plan.

Foreseen uncertainties

There are some variations that are identifiable and understood that the PR team cannot be sure will occur or when an under known circumstances it will occur.

 To mitigate foreseen uncertainties, the plan will need to include the capability to identify the event and a capability to deploy a pre-planned contingency programme.

An example (and not uncommon event)  might be unscheduled maintenance of a computer that is running the campaign blog. One big issue is website uptime (especially if a campaign is very successful) with issues such as a slowing of response times of the organisation's web site or, disaster of all disasters, the web site being so overwhelmed that it stops responding (in retail, this is the equivalent of the organisation's biggest shop being closed).

When a web site goes down, it is a PR problem. It is not an IT department problem. Risk analysis is critical in identifying and mitigating these events. Practicing for such events has to be included in any plan. Who does what, when and how and if they are not available or facilities are down who else should be included as part of such a plan.

Unforeseen Uncertainty

This kind of event cannot be identified during project planning. Or during risk management planning. There is no Plan B.

The team will be unaware of the event’s possibility or will consider it so unlikely that there is no in-built contingency plan. To be able to manage such events a comprehensive monitoring and alerting process is critical. Allis not lost, it is possible to have contingent plans in place to ensure that the right information (e.g. Information about internal manages and key issues management personnel, lists of journalists, bloggers, Twitter friends etc) is available and accessible (good idea to have it in the cloud so that it can be accessed in even the most dire circumstances) . There is a need to have alternative managers available if key figures are not available and of course many facilities can be put in place from 'dark' web sites to off site facilities to work from.

Unknown unknowns

Sometimes refered to as “unk-unks,” they make people nervous because existing decision tools are not available. Unforeseen uncertainty is not always caused by spectacular events or issues. They can arise from the unanticipated interaction of many events, each of which might, in principle, be foreseeable. The best management practice here is attention to detail and constant re-evaluation of the crisis and issues plan and its application.

Managing risk and online crisis is not very difficult. The hard bit is gaining commitment and resources to mitigate risk and plan for issues and crisis management.

There is also this very helpful process developed by Alison Clark for the joint CIPR/PRCA internet commission in 1999. The PR industry has had so many tools to help manage issues and crisis management for such a long time. Well done CIPR and PRCA!

issues management


In Brief:

• Many management teams are wary of the internet and many see it as a threat. For some there is no doubt that it is a threat and needs management.
• The sequence of events of online programmes can be easily disrupted by the online community.
• Plans can allow organisations to grasp opportunities and manage threats with tools that can be deployed at short notice.
• The practitioner can use some well known techniques to second guess what will be fashionable or will work (and those that won’t) using risk and opportunity techniques.
• Online PR, with its range of platforms channels and contexts, is quite complex. But the opportunities for considerable incremental success are greater.
• Risks can be identified and conform to a number of recognised variables.
• It is possible to evaluate risk and asses its influence in terms of probability and impact.
• Development of plans to mitigate risk before implementation will reduce threat.
• Risk management is a process and can be applied to strategy as well as tactics.
• There are a lot of techniques that can be applied to ameliorate risk, optimise opportunity and, written into the programme strategy using techniques adopted from other disciplines, PR can ensure greater certainty in online activities.
• Planning for programme variation, foreseeable uncertainties, unforeseen uncertainty and the unknown is possible and practical.

The strategic decision that can be made will cover the extent to which issues contingency planning will be part of the online activity.

The time and resource that will be devoted to issues and crisis management.
Who will be involved in issues and crisis management and that structured methodologies will be a applied.

Finally the strategy might consider how the organisation will practice contingency planning.

This post is relies extensively on the chapter on risk and issues management in the PR in Practice series of books, Online Public Relations a CIPR practice manual. Practitioners may also find Michael Register's book in the same series very informative.